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Dylan Sampson’s unexpected career-day helps Vols thrash Virginia

Sampson’s four-TD day throws the Hoos into an identity crisis

NCAA Football: Virginia at Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For last season’s Tennessee team to win a game, there were some boxes that needed checked:

  • At least one big-play score through the passing game
  • A minimal number of the opposing team’s wide receivers running wide-open down the field and catching touchdowns
  • Hendon Hooker turning a sack, fumble or a possible interception into either a throw-away incompletion or a big gain on a scramble
  • An occasional big play in the return game from Dee Williams
  • And the Vols owning the run game

A lot of those boxes from last year will remain this year, but one box that not many folks expected to show up was considerable contributions from Tennessee’s third-string running back, sophomore Dylan Sampson. On Saturday, Sampson scored four times on 14 touches (13 rushes, one catch for 61 total yards). Another unexpected box that got checked: the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Sampson being the touchdown vulture at the goal line. He had a three-yard score at the goal line in the second quarter and two, two-yard TD runs in the third.

But he opened the day with his only reception of the game, a nine-yard pass to the near-sideline flat that Sampson took in for six points: (first play in the following video, then the Milton “get off me,” stiff arm, just for fun and the rest of Joe’s highlights from the game, cuz why not?)

“That’s a good way to start if you’re a running back,” the reliably reticent Heupel said after the game Saturday.

I don’t imagine any back in the Vols’ loaded stable of runners leap-frogging those sort of numbers from an efficiency’s standpoint this season.

Sampson turned heads last preseason as a freshman with his speed and has been clocked as one of the fastest players on the squad, hitting the 23-MPH mark on UT’s GPS system used during practices. But UT took two running backs in the 2022 cycle, and it was supposed to be four-star recruit Justin Williams-Thomas who would take the reins during camp and be the team’s third-string back. Instead, even though Williams-Thomas enrolled in January and went through spring practices, while Sampson didn’t get here until fall camp, it was Sampson who pretty much immediately leapt over Williams-Thomas on the depth chart. (Williams-Thomas entered the transfer portal after last season, transferred to Stanford and has already transferred again, this time to California.)

Obviously, there’s still not enough of a sample size to make a distinction on how effective Sampson will be during his career with the Vols, but right now, it looks like a pretty good evaluation from Jerry Mack and the staff, considering they beat out teams like Vanderbilt, Louisville, Purdue, Duke and Michigan State for the Louisiana four-star’s services.

With Jabari Small’s shoulder banged up for various parts of last year — he carried the ball less than 15 times in all but three games (Small dinged the shoulder in the Vols’ third game of the year, against Akron — the same game when the Zips’ DB were making it a point to go low on their tackles against Tennessee’s wideouts). This caused quite the stir during the game and a high-ankle sprain that limited the eventual Third-Round NFL Draft Pick Cedric Tillman to just six games, 37 catches, 417 yards and just three TDs.

So, Sampson ended up playing much more than I or the staff imagined. He finished his freshman year with nearly 400 yards on 57 carries and six TDs, averaging just under 10-yards per-carry. Those numbers are likely bolstered by his best game of his freshman season — a 12-carry, 130-yard performance in UT’s last game of the year against Vanderbilt — that was capped off by this 80-yard dash where he bulldozes a hapless Vandy defender and then goes untouched to the end zone. (Go to the 55-second mark of the following video if you just want to watch the long TD run against Vanderbroke.)

Jaylen Wright started Saturday, and racked up 121 yards on just 12 carries. The Vols’ backfield is loaded, and we saw the carries split fairly evenly between Wright, Small (13 carries) and Sampson (13 carries). I figure the staff plans to spread out the rushes like that all season, as each back brings a little dose of something unique to the field. Freshmen Khalifa Keith and Cameron Seldon both carried the ball twice for two yards, too, and I’d say they’ll both get more touches — especially Seldon — as the year rolls on.

I’m not sure why Heupel didn’t and typically doesn’t get younger guys onto the field quicker, as the starters played well past halftime against Saturday, as the start of the third and fourth quarters were kinda the marker last year for the staff calling off the dogs. Maybe it was all the Tony Elliott chatter before the game? Did AD Danny White want to drop 50 on UVA? Or, perhaps more likely, Heupel just wanted his starters to get some live-game run together since several, key skill players are new to this year’s team. I prefer the Danny White theory, but I’ll take the tinfoil hat off after this writing.

Sampson’s four-TD game and now career record for TDs in a single game will be hard to beat, but if Tennessee’s sophomore back has anywhere close to that kind of production every week, it’s going to be hard to argue against the Vols having one of the best running-back rooms in the SEC, if not the country.